When your phone dies or your computer breaks, you might assume it has reached the end of its useful life. The exact opposite is true. Together these discarded devices are filled with billions of dollars of valuable metals and minerals that could be reincarnated as new gadgets. Unfortunately, only a fraction of junk electronics are recycled, which has lead to an escalating environmental problem. Eventually, as the surface deposits of metals and minerals we mine to make our gadgets become depleted, recycling electronics for their materials may become a critical practice–but for now, e-waste is the fastest growing trash category in the world.
As the Amsterdam-based design studio Formafantasma argues, using e-waste more effectively will require thinking about it as a precious resource, not trash. To raise awareness of the problem, investigate its consequences, and propose solutions, the studio created a new installation called Ore Streams for the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. In addition to documentary videos and photos about e-waste, the project produced a suite of office furniture made from “re-composed” discarded electronics.
“Beyond systemic improvements, design can be used to seduce and to elicit a less conscious attitudinal shift for the better,” the studio says in a news release. “The collection of objects created for Ore Streams act as a Trojan horse, using form and color to initiate a deeper exploration of ‘above ground mining’ and the complex role design plays in transforming natural resources into desirable products.”
Formafantasma has a knack for exploring the poetic side of experimental design, whether it’s painting with light or reimagining ancient Roman objects. In Ore Streams, the designers treat waste like art. They took computer housings, smartphone bodies, microwave shells, and other electronic components and reassembled them into a cubicle, file cabinet, lounge chair, lamp, and table. Then they painted the pieces in vibrant colors, giving them the objet d’art treatment.
When Formafantasma researched some of the problems contributing to e-waste, it found that part of the difficulty of extracting materials and metals from old gadgets is due to today’s industrial design. The miniaturization of products has led to companies using glue as a space-saving fastener; unfortunately, this makes it difficult to disassemble a product and recycle its components. Separating hazardous materials from valuable materials is also difficult, since most cables are covered in black rubber, which makes it hard for automated recycling systems to differentiate between the two. Additionally, materials aren’t labeled at all, making it labor intensive to figure out exactly what is what. By making their parts visible and celebrating them as art unto themselves, the installation questions the design and manufacturing decisions companies have made when producing their products, and what values they represent.
“The set of objects within the NGV Triennial, formally based on commercial office furniture, question modernist design objectives, such as standardization, universal style, efficiency, and modularity,” the Triennial’s website states. “By revealing the invisibility of material origins within contemporary products, Formafantasma reveal how designers, who define what materials will become, can fail to consider or to communicate the sources or potential afterlife of the products they create.”
Corporations are beginning to take this issue seriously. In its 2016 keynote, Apple debuted a robot–still in the research and development phase– that disassembles iPhones. With projects like Formafantasma’s, perhaps more companies–and consumers–will see the richness in their e-trash.